October 19, 2012

Maine Voices: GrowSmart summit will be mindful of state's 'quality of place'

By DANIEL HILDRETH

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An R&D grant helped finance a new marine research center at Bigelow Laboratory.

2010 Staff File

On Tuesday, GrowSmart Maine will convene a statewide summit at the Augusta Civic Center. GrowSmart's past summits have been attended by hundreds of engaged citizens from a broad spectrum of government entities, businesses, and nonprofits from around the state.

This year, the summit follows GrowSmart's recent release of Charting Maine's Future: Making Headway. It's a progress report on recommendations from the original Charting Maine's Future, commissioned by GrowSmart and conducted by the Brookings Institution (the "Brookings report"). Research for the Brookings report was overseen by Bruce Katz, vice president and director of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. Bruce has written a foreword to the update and will be giving the morning keynote address at the summit.

The summit agenda is informed by themes from Charting Maine's Future, the recently released update, and current trends in smart growth in Maine. All of them relate to the question (in Angus King's formulation): How do we grow without wrecking the place?

When Charting Maine's Future was published in the fall of 2006, one of its principal impacts was to engage Mainers of diverse backgrounds and political perspectives in a common conversation about economic development in Maine. We have always appreciated the beauty of Maine's coast, natural landscapes, farms, historic downtowns, and working forests and waterfronts, but the Brookings report made the case that what it called our "quality of place" is in fact a fundamental strategic and economic asset for the state. The Brookings report's message was to look for efficiencies in government in order to finance sustained investments in our quality of place and in key sectors of the innovation economy.

These messages resonated strongly with citizens across the state, including Gov. Baldacci and the legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle at that time. As a result, some significant successes were achieved.

For example, in 2007, the Maine Legislature passed, Baldacci signed, and the voters approved a $50 million bond for research and development. That was quite a step for a state that historically has spent a relatively low percentage of its economic output on R&D.

Although that level of commitment was unfortunately not sustained (the Brookings report recommended $180 million for R&D over three years), the $53 million that has been authorized since 2006 has been very ably administered by the Maine Technology Institute. Charting Maine's Future: Making Headway finds very encouraging results of these investments in sectors such as biotechnology, information technology and advanced composites.

As an example, the Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay received a grant from MTI in 2009 for $4.45 million. This grant helped finance the construction of a new center at Bigelow, which will study marine viruses, bacteria, and algae. The project will double Bigelow's employment to 150 people, and Bigelow is collaborating with Maine companies on potential commercial applications of its research.

Other successes stemming from Charting Maine's Future recommendations relate to downtown revitalization. For example, the Maine Historic Preservation Tax Credit was passed in 2008. Since then, it has generated $200 million of investment in 37 rehabilitation projects -- during a very difficult economic environment.

Last year, the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage extended the credit for another 10 years. At the summit, a panel led by Greg Paxton of Maine Preservation will touch on how this tax credit and other strategies have leveraged investment in Eastport, Augusta and Dover-Foxcroft.

Aside from the Brookings research, GrowSmart has also recently been working on a project called "Re-envisioning the Highway Strip." It is exploring ways for highway-strip developments to be better connected with their surrounding communities.

A charrette on this issue was held in Belfast last year, and two more are planned for Topsham and Augusta. Lynne Seeley is leading this project for GrowSmart, and will discuss it at the summit.

As Charting Maine's Future: Making Headway makes clear, a lot has been accomplished as a result of the Brookings report, but a lot still needs to be done. Please join us at the summit this week to learn more and offer your ideas on how we can grow without wrecking Maine.

Same day registration is available. To obtain a copy of the update or learn more about the summit, visit www.growsmartmaine.org.

Daniel Hildreth is a board member of GrowSmart Maine and board chair of Diversified Communications in Portland.

 

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